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Tang, Holmes and Foley
From left: Dr Stephen Tang, Associate Professor Vivien Holmes and Professor Tony Foley SFHEA.

This research is particularly significant in light of concerns about mental illness in the legal profession.

Three scholars from The Australian National University (ANU) College of Law have co-authored a research article examining new lawyers’ perceptions of the ethicality of their workplace, with just over half of respondents reporting above-average levels of integrity, responsibility and care in their workplaces.

The paper, titled ‘Ethical climate, job satisfaction and wellbeing: Observations from an empirical study of new Australian lawyers’ and co-authored by Dr Stephen Tang, Associate Professor Vivien Holmes and Professor Tony Foley SFHEA, was published in Volume 33, Issue 4 of The Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics.

The paper breaks new ground by investigating the relationships between perceptions of ethical climate and measures of psychological health, organisational learning culture, job and career satisfaction, and understandings of professionalism. Perceptions of ethical climate are perceptions of how the members of a law practice typically make decisions that involve ethical considerations.

The quantitative empirical study was conducted by an online survey of more than 300 lawyers, spanning all Australian jurisdictions, who had been practising for between three months and one year following their admission to practice. It found that participants perceived the following dimensions of ethical climate in their workplaces, to a greater or lesser extent: 

  • Power and self-interest: The extent to which power, control, and instrumental outcomes are more important and valued than normative principles, such as honesty, ethicality, or relational values, and a corresponding preparedness to break rules to obtain benefit when necessary.
  • Integrity and responsibility: The extent to which there is a sensitivity to behaving ethically and in the broader public interest; an adherence to formal ethical rules; an inclination to be compliant, conscious, and accountable to prescriptive requirements; and an awareness of ethical problems as they arise in the workplace.
  • Ethic of care: The extent to which people in the workplace expressed empathy and understanding for each other and strove to develop positive and respectful relationships with others as an attentive professional.

Associate Professor Holmes, an expert in legal ethics, legal education and the legal profession, said the study follows the scholars’ earlier qualitative work that focused on new lawyers and how they found meaning and a sense of agency in their early experience of practice.

“One of the experiences new lawyers reported as influential and significant was finding a comfortable convergence between their personal values and ethical frameworks and those modelled by colleagues,” she said, adding that this line of research is relevant to a first-year course she convenes at the ANU College of Law: Lawyers, Justice and Ethics (LAWS1202/LAWS6102) and its discussion of the factors that influence ethical decision-making.  

In analysing their data, the ANU researchers identified three broad types of ethical climate at Australian legal workplaces: ‘Ethical Apathy’, ‘Getting Ahead’ and ‘Positive Balance’.

‘Ethical apathy’ (23 per cent of respondents), describes an organisation evidencing no strong desire to build relationships or a community of care, but neither was there an inclination to direct energy towards self-interested instrumental outcomes at the expense of ethical norms. ‘Getting Ahead’ workplaces (22 per cent of respondents), were characterised by an individualistic and instrumental ethical climate. Lawyers reporting ‘Positive Balance’ (55 per cent of respondents), perceived their workplaces as having above-average levels of integrity, responsibility and perceived ethic of care.

The study then correlated these ethical climate ‘types’ with measures of psychological health, organisational learning culture, job and career satisfaction, and understandings of professionalism.  The findings were clear:  ethical norms have an important role in shaping the way in which basic psychological needs are met (or not met) in the workplace, with significant consequences for both wellbeing and ethical conduct.

“This research is particularly significant in light of concerns about mental illness in the legal profession,” she noted. ‘Lawyers’ mental wellbeing cannot simply be reduced to an individual’s personal experiences disconnected from the ethical climate of the organisation in which they work.’

“Our findings are clear enough for legal practice managers, professional bodies and regulators to take note of the strong links between ethicality and sound mental health and job satisfaction and to develop interventions aimed at promoting ethical behaviour.”

This article and a companion piece in the Journal of the Legal Profession, ‘Ethical misconduct by new Australian lawyers: prevalence and prevention’, form the basis for an ongoing empirical project for which Associate Professor Holmes and Professor Foley will seek Australian Research Council Discovery funding support to progress further.

Dr Stephen Tang

Honorary Lecturer

Professor Tony Foley SFHEA

Emeritus Professor

Updated:  24 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team